Dirty Birth

Advent is long gone, but it is my favorite time of year.  It is the only time that I feel like I can blend in with the heard.  We are all waiting and hoping for light in a time of cold and darkness.  I was raised anti-catholic, and to fear Mary.  To give Mary any attention was to worship a false god.  Now I understand that fear of Mary has more to do with the patriarchy than an actual fear that we will deify her.

As I thought of advent this year, I meditated on Mary.  I wondered about her.  I couldn’t stop thinking about her.  So I wrote down my thoughts.

Dirty Birth

She was so tired.  The traveling was a chore and a burden and not as exciting as she wished it was.  Her back ached so much.  She did not ride the donkey very much.  Getting on it was too cumbersome with her distended belly.  Her legs and thighs ached because of its heavy gait.  The donkey was old anyway and it was their only donkey.  So she walked.  Her back had a deep ache and the ache was getting deeper and deeper.  
*

On all fours she rocked back and forth on her hands and knees.  The woman that the property owner had brought to help her, a midwife, wanted her to try to get up and squat with a birth stool, but the squatting hurt too much. Even with the midwife offering her own body as support- Miryam refused.  She was just fine on her knees.  The contractions were too close together for her to move between them anyway.  As each one came and crashed against her body, she breathed as deeply as she could and involuntarily swayed her hips.  Her body was simultaneously grasping for relief and working hard to move a baby out.  The midwife rubbed Miryam’s back and a young girl, no more than 9 years old, stood rigidly against the wooden wall, eyes wide.  The child was ready with the birthing stool, a pile of sun dried rags, oil, and a wool blanket that was clean enough.  It was all they had had time to bring.  The midwife had her bag and barked orders at the sleepy girl to assist her.

The laboring mother groaned loudly and tears streamed down her face.  Her back and bottom burned from the contractions and she wished her mother and cousin were there to be her midwives.  She did not cry from the physical pain.  She cried because the young wide-eyed girl reminded her of her former self.  It was only a few years ago that she was 9 and old women barked orders at her.  So many things had happened in the span of a few years.  She was not ready to be a mother and a wife no matter how wonderful the child could be.  Miryam was not sure, but she had been laboring since before sunset, and it was going to be morning soon.  She did not feel favored during these hours.  In this hour she was utterly alone and unseen.

She wept and dropped her head to the rough blanket they had given her on the dirt floor.  Her blanket was less than clean, but she did not care or notice.  It was dark in the stall and she was glad they could not see her cry.  She labored quietly, mind the groans and deep sighs.  She did not want to worry Yossef.  He was within earshot.  Or maybe he wouldn’t worry if she screamed and if she died.  If she were to die in labor, he would be free of her as his obligation.  He could start again.  He was a generous man.  He had kept his promises to her even when her belly swelled with child after she had been gone for months- living with her cousin.  People talked.  He stood by her and his promise.  She shook her head as if to shake the thoughts out.  If she survived this birth, she needed to prove herself strong and brave.

Miryam would not scream yet.  She swallowed the cries with the next contraction.  She had torn her dress off an hour ago and thankfully the midwife was unalarmed to see a naked laboring mother, bottom up, sweaty, and mooing.  The dress was filthy from the walk and smelled.  It was better that it was off.

The pain was unbearable.  Miryam wanted to rewind her life 40 weeks and say no to her blessing.  She wanted to crawl out of her skin and be back in the arms of her mother.  If she had the strength, she would have run away from the filthy stall.  She hadn’t forseen her life looking like this.  This was not how kings were born.

Miryam didn’t know what she believed anymore.

“You are getting close,” the midwife said and firmly pressed on Miryam’s lower back.  She poured warmed oil on her fingers and massaged the laboring mother.  Miryam was so relieved to have the midwife touch her.  She felt momentarily less alone and the pressure on her back was a distraction.  No one had touched her in so long.  Yossef was- well- he was afraid of her.  He was distant.  She felt utterly alone.  Sometimes there were bouts of relief and she felt reassured that he trusted her.  She was glad to be his betrothed.  He had saved her from the disgrace of being alone and pregnant.  But he kept his distance and expected her to be the model wife.  She was humble, diligent, and obedient.

She let out a cry and the midwife knew she was transitioning.

“I can see the head!”  The midwife shouted and used her fingers to make sure it was the top of the head she was feeling.  She motioned for the young girl to come to her.  Every birth was a new opportunity to learn.  The midwife would not tell her helper until later that she was glad to not feel an infant’s face, bottom, or feet.  The midwife was pleased that the soft spot of the infant’s head had a strong pulse.  Delivering dead babies was something she did often, but it never got easier.  Early in the labor, when the contractions were getting closer together, Miryam had nonsensically repeated that everything would be fine and that she was favored, but she also had a slight fever at that point.  The midwife didn’t mind a delirious laboring mother- she also didn’t mind if she did have a mother that was favored.  Uneventful births were happy births.

Miryam continued to rock and her head was on the ground now.  She grasped the blanket tightly and pushed with every contraction.  The pushing helped bring small moments of relief.  But she was so very tired.  She had been having contractions as they walked into town.  She was able to walk through most of them.  As they got closer and closer to town, she had to stop walking for the duration of each contraction.  Yossef was clueless and frightened.  Miryam was clueless and frightened.  She boldly threw her arms around  him for the longer ones, which took them both by surprise.

She yelled out as she pushed.  She could not hear herself and she did not hear the commotion about her.  The young girl brought the rags and knelt down behind Miryam.  Newly born babies were slippery and the rags would help her catch the infant.  The young girl would catch the babe, the midwife would continue to rub the warm oil to sooth the burning that came with crowning.  All the women were knelt there together, taking up space on the modest blanket that was covering a filthy floor.

Miryam’s back slouched and the midwife knew the young woman was exhausted.

“You told me you would be fine and you are doing exceptionally well.  Maybe you are favored.”    Miryam’s head nodded slightly even as she rested it upon the scratchy blanket.  The stall they were in glowed dimly with the light of two meager lanterns.  Dawn was coming, but it was still very dark.  None of the women felt the chill in the air because they were working tremendously hard to birth a baby.

“Now on this next one, take the biggest breath and push with everything you have and you can be done.  Prove to me you are favored,”  The midwife was both scolding her and encouraging her.  Miryam mustered all the strength she had left and lifted her head up off the blanket.  She inhaled and the midwife could see her back and ribs expand with air.

“That’s a good girl.  Now push!”

And as the midwife yelled at her to push Miryam groaned loudly until her body heaved with sobs.  The young girl caught the baby.  The midwife relaxed back on her heels.  Miryam collapsed forward on her side and before she knew it the 9 year old girl had already placed the baby on her sweaty chest.  Her hair was tangled and dirty and matted.  The baby cried out with life in her arms and she swept her hair away from her face to get a look at her child.  The midwife tied a string around the umbilical cord and wrapped the pair in the larger blanket.  They helped Miryam to sit up and nurse the baby.

Her contractions continued and they would continue until she delivered the after birth.  Miryam felt them and she was aware of the discomfort but it did not matter to her.  Her body hummed and glowed with the warmth of her healthy baby.  Her betrothed was not there, and she was unclean, so he would not come too close.  She would be tended to by her family if she was at home.  But for now, she was all alone and in place that was not her home, in a room that was barely fit for animals.  She wept softly, overcome, but she did not feel sorry for herself.

Maybe she was favored after all.

 

 

Everything is like birth. And everything is like death.

*I wrote this in April but it was way too much to process at the time.  I am a safe distance from these things now, so I can share.  
 
 
My grampa’s one year deathaversary was just last week.  I spoke to my grandmother on the phone and we were able to enter into that sacred space of being candid and vulnerable and imperfect.  She has not slept well this last year without her partner and friend of over 60 years.  I told her I could not believe it had already been a year.  It feels like he just died.  My father died almost 17 years ago and it feels like he just died yesterday.  So much time has passed and the wounds are fresh and tender.  
 
Me: Gramma, does it feel like he [grampa] just died?
Gram: Sometimes yes and no.  Sometimes it feels like he has been gone for too long.  And sometimes it feels he was just here.
Me: Yeah.
 
Yeah.  That is exactly how it feels sometimes.  I remember holding his soft cool hand by his bedside as he lay there dying.  I sang him hymns.  He struggled to breathe.  I compulsively checked his radial pulse.  His heart just would not quit.  His face was gaunt.  He did not speak.  We waited and watched.  We waited for his death.  It took him a very long time to let go and to die.  It feels like it just happened yesterday.  Every pain and smell and sound is so near.  
 
Last week I was able to see my best friend give birth.  I was there when her first baby was born.  Six years ago her daughter was born in a hospital.  She had an epidural and I held one of her legs and her husband held the other.  She breathed and pushed and her daughter was born.  Today her daughter is leggy with golden pink hair and a coy smile.  I held that kid once as a swaddled burrito, her belly button scab came off on my shirt and I thought I broke her.  The 6 year old (that she has magically become) and I have a mad crazy bond.  She will always be my first kid, my first baby that I desperately love.  It is strange that she talks to me in full sentences.  It is strange that she knows stuff.  And she knows so much stuff.  It feels like she was just born yesterday.  

Last week I saw her sibling born, at home- a natural tub birth.  It was much different from watching my friend labor the first time.  I still held a leg, though.  The labor was long.  There was breathing and prayer and encouragement.  There was hand holding and grasping.  There was waiting.  There was listening and checking for the baby’s heart beat; it was so loud and strong- that little beat.  The labor was 16 hours.  For her 6th child, that was a long labor.  But then she pushed, and her son shot through the water in the tub and bobbed to the surface.  
 

 

The stark similarities between my grandfather’s death and my friend’s birthing are not lost to me.  The events were so similar, but they were so different.